Off the Carpet: Clooney and Pitt lead Best Actor talk, but the real action is elsewhere

Posted by · 8:09 am · September 26th, 2011

This year’s Best Actor race is an odd bird indeed. There are so many wonderful performances out there, but so few seem to fit into the (unfortunate) Oscar paradigm. Hopefully that will mean studios will recognize some opportunity and/or Academy members will venture outside of their comfort zones. But in many ways, the race seems decided.

Four performances have been seen already and are considered formidable. Let’s start there.

It all started with Jean Dujardin’s award in Cannes for Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” (which was inserted into the competition line-up at the last second). As the film has continued to play the festival circuit, it has consistently charmed audiences and few can find reason to argue that Dujardin won’t find room in the lead actor race. But it’ll take a little extra effort as he isn’t a known commodity in Hollywood and often has to charm via translator. But he’s looking good for now.

Popping up at Telluride was Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and the undeniable work from George Clooney. Some consider his performance in the film to be a career best (I think I might agree with them). The added exposure of his directorial effort (in which he has a small but significant role), “The Ides of March,” is merely added fuel. Chalk him up.

Not long after that film’s Telluride bow, Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” showed up on a rainy Monday at the Venice Film Festival. Gary Oldman’s icy, reserved and impeccable delivery of John le Carre’s George Smiley character is the kind of thing fellow actors fawn over. And while it’s not a powerhouse of showy emoting, it is impossible not to recognize how much he owns the role. Assuming he’s out of Hollywood’s doghouse following the press faux pas surrounding 2000’s “The Contender,” he should be able to slide in. Certainly the British voting block will spring for him.

Finally, opening this weekend is “Moneyball,” and with it, a unique movie star performance from Brad Pitt. I would say Pitt is bringing up the rear at the moment, as the film’s box office fate is yet to be revealed and keeping any sort of momentum going through the season could be a tall order. But the best thing the film has going for it right now is underestimation.

Now, at the top of most lists coming into the season was Leonardo DiCaprio’s still unseen performance as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.” The trailer has dropped, so we have a bit of an idea of what to expect. The project appears to be dripping with Oscar bait, but if anyone is in danger of sliding away here, I would say it’s DiCaprio and Pitt. We simply need to kn what we’re working with vis a vis the former, and the latter has to outshine some things still to come.

So those are the generally agreed-upon five at the moment, but forgive me if I think that doesn’t even BEGIN to represent a stellar year of leading male performances.

Let’s start with the year’s best portrayal, Michael Shannon’s work in “Take Shelter.” Here is an expert class in control and embodiment. It’s undoubtedly his personal best and further proves why he’s one of the best actors of his generation. I can only hope Sony Pictures Classics recognizes that and plans to push accordingly, because he is the best bet for a nod in this category in their stable; though they will try for more with lead pushes for Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly in “Carnage.” (Look for my interview with Shannon tomorrow.)

Then there is Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” I’ve been going on about this one since Telluride and gave a hearty pat on the back to Fox Searchlight for picking it up. Again, it’s the actor’s best work yet, a revelation of nuance and internalized, obsessive agony.

Nipping at the heels of Shannon and Fassbender for my personal favorite performance of the year is Woody Harrelson in the recently acquired “Rampart.” Here is a stunning portrait that could see an entire Oscar campaign for the film worked around it, and my fingers are crossed it’s not lost in the fray.

These aren’t really “Academy-friendly” portrayals, for various reasons. “Take Shelter” is small. “Shame” is NC-17. “Rampart” is a downer. But they nevertheless represent the top tier of performance on film this year.

Moving along, Ryan Gosling gives two brilliant, award-worthy performances this year in “Drive” (cagey and withdrawn) and “The Ides of March” (charismatic and slick). Tom Hardy is all steely will and focus in “Warrior.” And Joseph Gordon-Levitt nails both comedy and drama with ease in “50/50.” (Look for my interview with Gordon-Levitt later this week.)

Demián Bichir’s work in Christ Weitz’s “A Better Life” is still one of the finest pieces of work from a lead this year. Summit is serious about pushing the film and already has screeners out there. Meanwhile, the underestimated Rhys Ifans is electric in “Anonymous,” filling out a triumvirate of leading actor possibilities in Sony films (with Daniel Craig in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” still to come).

Ewan McGregor in “Beginners,” Anton Yelchin in “Like Crazy,” Paul Giamatti in “Win Win,” all brilliant portrayals in quality indies. Hunter McCracken in “The Tree of Life?” One of the year’s absolute best.

This is to say nothing of the beautiful work in foreign films this year, from André Wilms in “Le Havre” to Peyman Moaadi in “A Separation.” They have no chance, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy. They absolutely are.

Still to come we have Matt Damon in “We Bought a Zoo,” Johnny Depp in “The Rum Diary,” Thomas Horn in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and Jeremy Irvine in “War Horse.” And who knows what will happen if films like “Barrymore” (Christopher Plummer), “Salmon Fishing on the Yemen” (Ewan McGregor) or “Killer Joe” (Matthew McConaughey, who was already brilliant earlier this year in “The Lincoln Lawyer”) are picked up? But the point is, to me, the story of this year’s Best Actor race is outside the box.

I hope Academy voters plan on looking there. More importantly, I hope these various campaigns at least point them there.

UPDATE: Living in Cinema’s Craig Kennedy reminds me of Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris,” which I had thought about including here but, knowing the studio has bigger fish to fry, I excluded him. Still, that’s part of the point here, the bevy of quality if not “Oscar” with a capital “O” performances in the field this year. Wilson gave one of the better, more organic surrogate Woody Allen performances of late and could at least get some Golden Globe recognition at the end of the day.

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